We are in danger of reanimating some bad ideas about work

Did you hear the one about a Swiss court ruling that firms should pay to rent space in the homes of remote workers? It’s a hell of a thing, especially when so much has been made of the cost savings of a reduction in office space. It’s a notion that is extremely likely to be tested in other countries, so brace yourself. It also illustrates why so many of the narratives about working life after lockdown aren’t as straightforward as they might appear.

I’ve been observing the shift towards all of this for nearly thirty years now and have always been an advocate of flexible working and better work cultures. I understand that there are cultural, technological and physical domains of work – it’s been embedded in our strapline for years – but the meteor strike of what is happening now has released some toxins into the discourse that we really need to talk about more than we are.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What most people hate about their jobs is the utter stupidity of travelling to the same place every day at the same time as everybody else[/perfectpullquote]

The most obvious of these is the new obsession with productivity. We’ve always known that it’s just as possible to work your way down a to-do list at home as in the office. Probably more so. The only surprising thing about this is that it only appears to have become obvious to a lot of people in the last few weeks.

(So too the ‘discovery’ that what most people hate about their jobs is the utter stupidity of travelling to the same place every day at the same time as everybody else.)

Now we’ve realised that cold, hard productivity is location independent, the question becomes what we want work to be. Is it merely an economic transaction between the worker and the employer or something more meaningful? It’s a question that was addressed rather well a couple of years ago by Jess Eddy in this piece which draws a distinction between transactional and transformational work.

“A transactional relationship to a job can be one where you trade time for money without any or many other benefits. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if combined with the feeling that a job isn’t serving your higher purpose, using your innate talents or allowing you to evolve as a person, it can feel empty and like a waste of time.

“Transformational job experiences, on the other hand, will enable us to do what we’re good at consistently in an environment that benefits from it and so this loop is created. An experience can even be so transformational that you not only use your strengths but get better at your weaknesses; or perhaps can grow through the people you meet or new skills you learn on the job.

“A transactional relationship can be a dangerous situation. It’s easy to let this become the norm and more or less accept it. Time goes by, and you get used to punching the clock, and the idea of changing your situation becomes a distant, un-relatable thought.”


Back in the box

Our new obsession with productivity is a reversion to something old. We are potentially reanimating the corpse of homo economicus with the way we now talk about work. And we are doing so in the name of good work.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Those who have spent the past few years chewing on about the office panopticon are now silent about its digital equivalent[/perfectpullquote]

We routinely see people using remote work and flexible work interchangeably as if they are the same thing. We ignore the physical wellbeing and mental health of people who work at home, often as if those things only come at a cost to the individual. We brush aside the loneliness, conflict, unstructured days and lack of engagement. We ignore some bigger threats to the cohesion of society and levels of trust between people. Now, of all times, we are pushing the idea that we need to withdraw from contact with other people for reasons other than hygiene.

We frame the conversation about the mythical ‘new normal’ as if everybody works in tech or finance, as if they travel into big cities to work, as if they work for large organisations, as if they have plenty of space at home to accommodate remote work and as if everybody wants the same things all the time. And we are doing it all during a time in which people fear for their jobs.

Much has been made during this period of the 66 days it apparently takes for people to change their habits. Less time is spent pondering whether the new habits are better than the old ones or whether they will endure. Those who have spent the past few years chewing on about the office panopticon are now silent about its digital equivalent. At least in an open plan office the organisation didn’t install an app on your computer to generate data on your eye movements, real time activities and time spent in the toilet.

We are also commonly told that we are in the midst of a gigantic experiment into flexible working. This may be true, but we shouldn’t assume it’s over yet. If we see this as a work in progress and accept that there is a wider range of better variables than productivity and costs savings to consider, there is still chance we will emerge from this with better working lives and better times and places of work.

I’ll be in conversation about these ideas next week in a webinar with Karen Moran, Antony Slumbers, and Aki Stamatis. Please join us. 

Image by Hans Braxmeier